Now available on VOD and arriving in theaters this weekend is Stage Fright, an eccentric musical-slasher-comedy fromJerome Sable, the mad genius responsible for the excellent 2010 short The Legend of Beaver Dam. With Stage Fright,Sable and co-writer Eli Batalion set out to expand on the elements that made Beaver Dam so unique with more musical numbers, gorier set pieces, and a cast of recognizable faces (Meat Loaf, Minnie Driver, Allie MacDonald, Douglas Smith). The film follows the attendees of Center Stage musical theater camp as they produce their big show, “The Haunting of the Opera”, but someone has a sinister agenda against the play and wastes no time slicing and dicing through the cast of the ill-fated production.
I recently had the opportunity to jump on the phone for an exclusive phone interview with Jerome Sable and Eli Batalion. They talked about the genesis of the film, their writing process, how they work together as a creative team, Sable’s message to would be internet pirates, designing an iconic slasher villain, and the greatest challenges of filming a movie musical. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
JEROME SABLE: The movie was made for you. I’m glad you liked it.
Totally. Talk a little bit about where this project came from for you guys. Are you theater kids? Are you horror fanatics? What was the genesis of this project?
SABLE: Yeah, I mean we are, but not in the traditional sense I guess. Eli and I both had been doing theater for many years, probably about ten years, we made strange plays and did our bizarre musical comedies. A lot of them were two man shows that we would take on the road and they usually involved whacky musical numbers. Then when I went to film school I was getting more involved with horror and thriller stuff, and we decided that our next project at that time was going to combine those things that we liked, so the musical comedy and the horror. We made this short film, which is called The Legend of Beaver Dam, and that was our first foray into the horror musical as a film project. But it was well received and we decided to just keep going from there. We made Stage Fright as the logical next step. So it sort of came out of a combination of creative forces and interested that were swirling around at the time.
ELI BATALION: It was a time and a place, man. You had to be there. It was a crazy time, man [laughs].
[Laughs] I saw Beaver Dam and I absolutely love it. It’s completely amazing. I’m curious about your writing process on these horror musicals. Do you find that the songs serve the story or do you write the story to fit the songs?
SABLE: Definitely the former. We do write the story first, then they lyrics, then the music is last to serve to lyrics, which should serve the story. There’s no other way really. Then of course when we’re doing music we might make realizations that might make us want to tweak the lyrics, which might make us want to tweak the story, but it starts with the story and ping-pongs from there. We have the luxury of being able to control all aspects of the process. Where a typical composer or songwriter in a particular would have to basically be handed something, then just work with it, and the director may or may not like it, and there would be maybe some sort of discussion, maybe not. We began the process of creating the music in and around the script much earlier. As opposed to the composer being nearly the very last thing that happens on a film project, this was basically nearly the very first thing and lasted up until the very end.
SABLE: Are you, right now? Under the table right now?
SABLE: That’s amazing.
BATALION: There’s a lot of tweaks. So the process is unique in that sense, particularly because it’s a musical film, which in itself is rare, but also the fact that between Jerome and myself we can mind the whole thing at the same time. So it’s a bit of a luxury that we have.
I’m always intrigued by creative duos and partnerships. Talk a little bit about how you guys work together and how you divide up your responsibilities.
BATALION: I usually lie on a couch [laughs] and I eventually pass out, then Jerome goes deep into the night, and then I wake up.
SABLE: I mean, yeah, we’ve been working together for a long time. Actually our first collaboration was when we were thirteen years old, over twenty years ago now, when we were both in 7th grade. We grew up in Montreal, we’ve been childhood friends going trough the same school system, so we ended up having a lot of different projects that we worked together on. The process when we get together and work is really just to shut out the outside world and incubate, and sort of try to harness silliness. Basically having the uninhibited, unfiltered silliness that we- just inherently we are very immature and then we try to turn that into something presentable for other people.
BATALION: There’s a lot of cottage cheese involved in the process. And alcohol. Those are the inputs to create this kind of output. That’s disgusting, but it’s true [laughs].
[Laughs] Gross and awesome. The horror musical is not what I would call an oversaturated market, so when I heard about this project I kind of just assumed it was difficult for you guys to get it off the ground. Then yesterday I sawJerome’s message to the would-be pirates of your film, which confirmed that suspicion. Talk a little bit about what it was like for you guys getting this film made.
SABLE: Yeah, we did try to … I’m glad you saw that [laughs], we did try to make this in the studio system at first, and while there was interest from the Hollywood studios and a producer and a production company down there, we did develop the work with a Hollywood and LA-based producer for months, ultimately the studios did all pass on the project because it’s not a studio film. It doesn’t fit into the normal categories of things you would see at the multiplex on the weekend at the mall. So it’s understandably not a studio project. We then took it outside the studio system and got it financed independently, and with all independent films there’s a big gamble because you’re making the movie without a distribution deal, without a sale. That is really a testament to the producers we had, the financiers that we had, that they basically were taking that risk and putting their faith into such a bizarre, off-center project. Ultimately we were really lucky that Magnolia, whose offices we’re sitting in right now to do this interview, was the distributer that came along and said, “Yeah, we’ll get behind this thing.” But it is always an uphill battle with projects that are indie and bizarre and left of center such as this one. It’s a hard pitch. It might be something that people laugh at initially like, “Oh a psychotic killer at a musical theater camp,” but then the laughter subsides and it’s like, “Okay, you want to put money into this? No.”
BATALION: It’s a different kind of laughter.
SABLE: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s a different kind of laughter. So yeah, I wrote that message to the would be pirates, because look, I understand- if you’re excited to see this movie and you live in a place where you can’t get the movie another way or if you don’t have the money to pay for the movie, then sure, I want you to see the movie, but if you can afford to pay for it, well that kind of purchase does end up contributing the overall success of the movie, which affects our ability to make another one.
BATALION: And in general, the ability of the industry to support rarer and more off center films.
SABLE: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
Totally, couldn’t agree more. I definitely want to touch what it was like for you guys to design an iconic slasher villain, not just the look and the mask, but in terms of personality you went more for a Freddy than a Jason. He’s got a lot of personality, he’s got his own musical style. Talk a little bit about how you guys came up with that.
BATALION: That was improvised?
SABLE: I think that line was improvised or maybe that was just some IMDB trivia that I read. It was really a question for us- well two things really. Musically, how do we musicalize a Freddy Kruger type villain? What would be the vocalist equivalent? And we we’re just like- obviously Axl Rose [laughs], and that would be the inspiration for the vocal style of our killer. But then also, just visually, we wanted it to stem from the pretentiousness of theater. So the idea is that in the movie the director is reinventing this British mega-musical to make it a Kabuki version, and then the killer re-appropriates that Kabuki mask to make it his or her or its mask. That was sort of the idea there. This killer hates theater people, what is one of the most hate worthy qualities of theater? That might be sort of the insistence on pretentiously reinventing old classics in academically random ways [laughs]. If that makes any sense.
[Laughs] That absolutely makes so much sense, I love it.
SABLE: Not to mention the fact that Kabuki masks are inherently scary to begin with.
Very true. Did you guys ever consider going the other direction of maybe what’s more typical of a slasher killer? The Michael Meyers, Jason Voorhees slow, silent stalker type. Or did that just not work with the musical format at all?
SABLE: No, we did consider that. Yeah, there is something scarier about the nonverbal killer, for sure, so you give something up when you go verbal. I think that was also part of the difference between Nightmare on Elm Street 2, 3, 4, so on and perhaps the initial one. They kind of embraced those one-liners later on in that franchise and it became a little more fun and funny. In the end we just couldn’t resist going verbal.
BATALION: Much like your two and half year old niece.
SABLE: He had so much to say.
Personally, I think you guys made the right choice. That silent slasher trope is a bit overdone and it was a nice surprise.
SABLE: Well everything. I mean we did all live singing on set, so when you mix that in with choreography, and working with extras, and then the young ages of all the cast and talent that we were working with, plus shooting outside and braving the elements and the noise and the wind [laughs]. You got a whole crew that you’re dealing with at the same time and actually a lot of these actors- they were pretty hip to doing televisual stuff, but a lot of them were from a theater background as well, so it’s not necessarily the way that they’re used to performing, in front of all these people with all these rigs set up. There was a lot of complexity involved in the shoot and it took a lot of preparation and rehearsal, probably a lot more than you might have for a similarly budgeted independent film, in advance so that we could get it right on the day because we didn’t have too many of those days on which to get it right.
Are you guys developing anything right now? Do you know what you want to do next?
SABLE: Yes, yes, we have a lot of things in the pipeline and in development. One thing that I can shout out that’s in the near future- have you heard of the ABCs of Death anthology?
SABLE: Magnolia is actually coming out with sequel ABCs of Death 2 and I do have the letter “V” in that anthology. So that will be the most imminent new project and then more film and TV wackiness to come after that.